Pragmatic paradigm shift will help resolve Palestinian-Israeli conflict

Steadily and skilfully, Israel is reaching out to the Gulf and seeking to build on connections in North Africa and elsewhere in the Arab world.
Sunday 16/12/2018
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu (L) meets with Omani Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said, October 23. (AFP)
New dynamics? Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu (L) meets with Omani Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said, October 23. (AFP)

After too many lives lost and too many opportunities squandered, pragmatic governments in the Middle East and North Africa have absorbed the adage that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome. Some are charting a new course to peace and a better life for their people, applying the lesson that, with patience and level-headed leadership, national interest can triumph over ideological rigidity.

This is the lesson Israel and some of its neighbours are learning — and teaching the world — 70 years after the founding of the Jewish state and more than half a century after the Arab League’s “three no’s” forbade contact with the unlikely winner of the Six-Day War.

It’s a lesson learned unevenly. Suspicion and resentment of Israel remain common on the Arab street, in the media and in professional associations. Anti-Israel resolutions and programmes sponsored by Arab countries and NGOs clutter the agendas of international organisations. State and non-state Middle East actors stockpile weapons with the hope of one day driving Jews from their ancient homeland. Virulent rejectionism has adherents across the region.

However, geostrategic realities — notably Iran’s territorial ambitions and cascading fallout from the Iraq War and the 2011 “Arab spring’ — combined with awareness of Israeli technological prowess and cultural compatibility are shaping a new narrative.

High-level contacts that once took place privately are now public events. Meetings of Middle East neighbours that used to be hidden in European hotels are now conducted in the region’s capitals. Exploratory visits once out of the question or requiring years to gain authorisation are increasingly run-of-the-mill.

That these instances of outreach and cooperation occur in the absence of an Israeli-Palestinian peace process — indeed, in the context of sharply curtailed contact between Jerusalem and Ramallah and essentially zero contact between Palestinian leaders and the traditional promoters of that process, the United States — is particularly striking.

Relationship-building and even public encounters between officials of Arab countries and Israel were in the past conditioned on commitments to address core issues in the conflict; with universal awareness that neither side is ready or able to trust its counterpart sufficiently to take the necessary risks for peace and universal impatience over lost opportunities to enhance regional security and prosperity as the freeze persists, that condition has been largely abandoned.

That pragmatic decision to engage Israel may be read as a signal of Arab states’ frustration with Palestinian leadership but it would be a mistake to interpret it as their retreat from the cause of justice and political autonomy for the Palestinian people or an endorsement of Israeli policies towards the Palestinians.

It can be argued, instead, that it reflects an understanding that decades of Arab efforts to delegitimise Israel have done nothing to either make Palestinian statehood a reality or the achievements of the young democratic Israeli state any less spectacular.

These countries are testing a new approach, one that the American Jewish Committee has been advocating for the last quarter-century across North Africa and the Middle East: engage Israel, confront common threats and seize mutually beneficial opportunities in concert with Israel, break down misunderstandings and distrust and thus establish a more favourable climate for Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Arab engagement with Israel, with inherent potential benefits, can be critically supportive of Israeli-Palestinian progress. It needn’t be dependent on it.

A dramatic demonstration of this paradigm shift occurred in October when Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu paid a well-publicised visit to Oman, a country with which Israel has no formal diplomatic relations. Netanyahu spent hours in close consultation with Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said on regional issues, including ways to advance Israeli-Palestinian peace. Sultan Qaboos had received Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas the previous week.

Addressing a regional security conference days later, Omani Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi spoke of the warm and utterly natural reception accorded Netanyahu as both a belated recognition of the reality of Israel’s existence and an endorsement of the potential benefits of Arab openness to the Jewish state, which, he says, “will greatly serve the interests of both the Palestinians and the Israelis and… bring stability to the Middle East.”

That Sultan Qaboos, a champion of moderation and one of the few Arab League rulers not to sever relations with Egypt after President Anwar Sadat’s 1977 peace mission to Jerusalem, took this bold step should come as no surprise.

Similarly gratifying were lower-level but significant signs from other Gulf Arab countries: visits to the United Arab Emirates by two Israeli ministers (one attending an international sporting event, the other addressing an international telecommunications conference); an invitation to an Israeli minister to participate in an international “start-up nations” forum in Bahrain in early 2019.

Worth noting, as well, were Netanyahu’s appeal to the White House not to allow the killing of dissident Saudi columnist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul to undermine the “stability” of Saudi Arabia and Israel’s ongoing — if guarded — cooperation with Qatar in humanitarian assistance to Gaza.

Steadily and skilfully, Israel is reaching out to the Gulf and seeking to build on historic kinships and connections in North Africa and elsewhere in the Arab world. The news is that the region, without relinquishing its traditional concerns — in fact, in ways that can address those very concerns — is beginning to reach back.

Large and small, the cracks in the Arab “anti-normalisation” wall are spreading, revealing a promising future — one that offers a counter-narrative to the region’s nihilist fanatics, new tools to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and security and prosperity to all the children of Abraham.